China Dolls, by Lisa See

China Dolls

What It’s About

Three best friends try to make it big in show business, despite anti-Asian prejudice in World War II.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Personally, I’m a sucker for old school Hollywood glamour. I know that world was full of lies, exploitation, and hierarchies of privilege, but goddamn, it was a great aesthetic. And, of course, the best works use that image while acknowledging the seedy underbelly. All About Eve, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard… that’s my jam right there.

This book captures that aesthetic, and combines it with detailed, research into an underrepresented and overlooked part of that world. The author is a mixed racial woman who was strongly influenced, both in life and her writing, by her Chinese grandparents. She based her portrayal of 1940s Chinatown heavily on her family’s recollections, and the result is a fantastic, fresh setting for a classic story.

I loved the dynamic between the three protagonists; all good hearted, all wounded in their own ways, all with flaws that balanced out when they worked together but escalated all too quickly when conflict was introduced. The thing you want from this story is to see them all work it out and get back together. Of course I won’t tell you if that happens or not, but the writing is completely successful in making you ache to see that.

Can somebody make a movie of this? I would watch the shit out of it.

Content Warnings

Frankly, all the things. You’ve got your racism, your sexual content, your alcoholism and depression, your physical abuse, your homophobia… it’s an offensive content buffet.

But man, if you’re going to read an offensive book, this is a great one to read. Obviously not if you want to avoid any of those things for mental health reasons. If you’re in need of actual trigger warnings for any of that, I recommend putting this on a “when I’m in a better place” shelf.

If, on the other hand, you are someone who is passionate about those topics, and wants to see them explored well in a book that is also very entertaining in its own right, this is the book for you. Full disclosure; characters are faithful to the perspectives and prejudices of their time, and don’t apologize for using un-PC language or embracing Hollywood stereotypes to get ahead. That doesn’t mean those issues aren’t addressed, but that they unfold naturally over the course of the plot. There were a lot of times I was worried about where she was going with a particular issue, but I pressed on, and I’m so glad I did.

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Courage to Stand

This has been one of the hardest episodes to review. I loved this episode as a kid. It was one of my favorite go to repeats. I knew from the day I started this project that I wanted to review it. But when I put it in as an adult, my opinions on it kept changing. First I was shocked by how bland and boring it was. Then I was angry at how simplistic it was, and noticed a lot of the toxic dynamics that were bothering me about other AIO episodes. Then I felt sympathetic to some aspects of the messages that I thought were aiming for something good, but definitely did not reach their target. In the end, this had to go with the meta-moralizing episodes. What is interesting here isn’t the story or the message itself, but the flaws in how they present the message, and how that ties into AIO’s approach as a whole.

Anyway, this episode opens with Robyn Jacobs talking to Connie. She is bummed about some recent events, and Connie is playing sympathetic bartender therapist. But with hot chocolate, obviously. Robyn opens the story with cheerleader tryouts. She isn’t actually that interested in cheerleading, but she wants to hang out with the cool kids. Connie nods knowingly and says that she once joined a drama club for the same reason.

Afterward the auditions, two cheerleaders, Michelle and Shannon, complimented her on her performance, but told her that being good isn’t enough. Robyn assumes they are talking about showing up for practice. But really, they are talking about the importance of being cool. If you aren’t cool, you don’t fit in with the cool kids, and that’s not cool.

Cause, you know, subtlety.

Then, out of the blue, Shannon invites her to a party. Robyn says she will come, but also asks her Mom to be sure. Her Mom is okay with it, but she insists on making Robyn ask if Shannon’s parents will be there to chaperone the party. She uses that word repeatedly, “chaperone,” and makes it clear that without a chaperone, Robyn can’t go.

Shannon translates the word “chaperone” as “babysitter.” Which is not strictly accurate. Babysitters watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely young. Chaperones watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely female and unmarried.

Given that these characters seem to be about 15, I’ll let you debate in the comments which word is more appropriate. I’m genuinely undecided. For me, that age is just on the edge where I would understand both the decision to cut loose and let your kids make mistakes, and the decision to still keep an eye on them. But I do think the word choice says a lot about where AIO is coming from. Their fears are not just about safety, but corruption. They are less afraid that fifteen year olds will accidentally burn the house down, more afraid that fifteen year olds will have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

Shannon tells Robyn if her Mom needs to hear that there will be chaperones, then she should tell her Mom that the party would be chaperoned. Robyn completely misses the fact that Shannon never actually says her parents will be there.

There is a whole other bit of dialog between Robyn and her Mom about the importance of chaperoning, but it’s sort of hard to summarize… or rather, it’s too easy to summarize. Mrs. Jacobs wants chaperones, because chaperones are important. So important that we will say the word until it does not sound like a word anymore. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Make sure your wild teen party has one. They specifically create a space where Robyn’s Mom could be more specific about her concerns, and they are intentionally vague. I took a dig at the old fashioned implications of the word choice, but I do think there’s something deeper behind it. Robyn, Shannon and Michelle seem to be around fifteen. I’ve known fifteen year olds who didn’t need a babysitter and fifteen year olds who definitely did. But Robyn has pretty good judgment most of the time. This isn’t about fear that Robyn might burn the house down, or even that she might not have the sense to get out of the house if someone else sets it on fire. It’s about the possibility that this will be the kind of party where fifteen year olds have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

But of course, they can’t discuss that openly. That would mean mentioning the existence of sex. So they just say chaperone an absurd amount of times. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone.

Anyway, Shannon and Michelle let Robyn hang out with them for the better part of a week. Mostly this is awesome, but once Robyn turns down a movie date because she goes to church every Wednesday night. Wednesday night services are a common part of AIO core cast life. They mostly come up to either A. induce mockery from non-Christian side characters, so as to remind us all of how persecuted Christians are, or B. allow a major Christian character to skip those services, therefore indicating that they are heading down a Slippery Slope (TM), without making them do something so shocking as skipping church on Sunday. Anyway, this is the former case, although Robyn notes that they find it weird more than actively mock it.

My perspective on this when I was a kid; “Wow, what complex characters! Even though they are evil cool kids, they aren’t actually picking on Robyn, and are giving her a chance to keep hanging out with the group. They aren’t rejecting her out of hand like so many non-Christians would. How interesting!”

My perspective on this now; “Wow, these characters behaved like actual non-Christians do, for like an entire three seconds.”

But then that realism is smashed when Michelle takes Robyn aside for a talk later. She delivers a sinister speech about how she used to go to church twice a week, but when she joined the cheerleading squad, she stopped. Not because she disliked it, but because Shannon has some weird, creepy influence on you, where without her directly teasing, you just stop wanting to do Jesus stuff. The final message is that Robyn needs to think about her cheerleading priorities, and how she will come across at the party.

I hate that. I hate that so much. Like, I think they were aiming for Regina George in Shannon’s characterization, but somehow they landed on the hypnotoad.

Hypnotoad
“Don’t go to church. Stay home. Watch Futurama.”

The day of the party they all talk about their plans, and Shannon brings up fitting in again. Once she has convinced Robyn to dress up, so as to really impress everybody, she casually mentions how she has enough time to fix any damage before their parents come back from out of town.

Wha-a-a-a? Her parents are out of town? Who could have possibly seen that coming?

Robyn refuses to defy her parents and go without a parental chaperone. Shannon promptly drops the invitation, and announces that Robyn absolutely cannot be a cheerleader because she isn’t cool enough.

And that’s why Robyn is so upset. Connie commiserates, and tells her how in the drama club, she was forced to play “raunchy” characters. Only those characters, nothing else. Connie played along for a while, despite feeling like it was wrong, and then one day she quit. This lost her all of her cool friends, and everything was sad, but then she had some personal revelation about the value of being herself. This bit also makes me very mad. I’m fine with Connie not wanting to play “raunchy” characters, whatever that means. Any drama club that pressures you into only playing characters you are deeply uncomfortable with is a shit club. What makes me angry is that, growing up, I thought this was realistic. It’s not. Most non-Christians don’t go out of their way to make Christians uncomfortable. I actually joined several acting clubs and classes. None of them pressured any students into taking roles they felt wrong about. One even let me tweak some dialog that I thought was mildly blasphemous. The “evil corrupting non-Christians” portrayal honestly fed into my anxiety, for no reason at all.

As I said earlier, most of these meta-moralizing episodes don’t have bad morals. I think it’s fine, for example, for Moms to decide they want their fifteen year old daughters to not be partying with college boys, for fifteen year old daughters to decide a trusting relationship with their mother is more important than the popular crowd, or for anybody to decide they aren’t comfortable stepping into a particular role, theatrical or social. I genuinely applaud Connie and Robyn for taking a path that felt harder, but was more true to their values. This episode is well titled; that took courage.

What I don’t like is the simplicity of the moral battle. This is all or nothing. It also feels like Shannon’s specific endgame was to separate Robyn from her beliefs, just as it seems implied that the drama club had a vested interest in making Connie feel immodest. It ties into a narrative, common to Evangelical circles, that the secular world is devoted to tearing them down… mostly people are actually pretty chill, so long as you aren’t constantly talking down to them.

This ties into the second part of Connie’s speech. She talks about how everything can seem important in the moment, but moments pass. Decisions have larger implications than just how they make us feel right now. Again, I’m all on board with that, as far as it goes, but then she starts talking about heaven and hell. She literally says that, for Christians, the present moment has implications for all of eternity. In other words, Robyn’s decision to quit the cheerleading squad is the kind of thing that can ultimately affect who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

That’s a ridiculously heavy perspective to take. And in some ways, I think there is something a little beautiful in it; the idea of small actions having rippling consequences for good. That’s how I took it as a kid, and I think that’s a lot of why I liked this episode so much. I used it to tell myself that by not watching a movie or using a swearword or wearing low cut clothing, I was making a difference in who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. Not just for myself, but potentially witnessing to someone who was hellbound, or weakening the influence of Satan on earth. I’m not exaggerating when I say most of my childhood was spent in a mentality where swearing to not ever drink or party meant I was Frodo dragging the ring to Mordor, or the Pevensies battling the White Witch. I’d add in Harry Potter standing up to Voldemort, but you know, not reading Harry Potter was one of things I did, as a good Christian.

I don’t know how to adequately convey how exhausting that pressure becomes. The fear that an immodest dress and a dance to a raunchy song might make you the Edmund Pevensie or the Boromir of eternity’s story. The idea that an impure thought might make you a weak link in the epic of the cosmos.

The creation of that pressure is not an unintentional side effect of some poorly chosen words. It is the intentional aim of this story.

The story ends when next week Michelle says she was inspired by Robyn, and decided not to go to the party either. As it turned out, Shannon’s brother from college showed up and things got “out of hand.” Neighbors called the police about the noise and everybody who went got in trouble. Michelle says she wants to hang out more with Robyn, and Robyn invites her to church. This is the confirmation of Connie’s message; Robyn’s choices created ripples that might now mean Michelle won’t go to hell.

Final Ratings

Best Part: The one real attempt at a joke in this episode is when Mrs. Jacobs is distracted from the party conversation by an absurd amount of scratches on her coffee table. She asks whether people have been using sandpaper as coasters or tap dancing on it with cleats. It’s…. kind of funny? Like I said, really bland episode.

Worst Part: This episode has so little content, it actually ends with clips from three other episodes where characters stood up for their beliefs. Yeah, it ends with a fucking clip show. They aren’t even short clips. It’s about an eighteen minute episode with three minutes of clip. For people so convinced they are making a difference in eternity, they are real goddamn lazy.

Story Rating: Unless you completely buy into Shannon as an agent of the devil and Robyn’s decision as steps on the road to hell, it is completely  boring and predictable. C-

Moral Rating: The idea of being true to your values instead of blindly following others is great, but again, the whole context means this idea is under-explored. It is focused on pushing a simplified look at non-Christians, as well as enforcing its own kind of conformity, rather than really helping kids make authentic decisions. D-

Same Difference, by Derek Kirk Kim

Same Difference

What It’s About

Two best friends, who are a hot mess and a half. I wish I could say more than that, but it’s a short enough book that goes so many places, literally and figuratively, that there’s no summary that isn’t also a bit of a spoiler. Although I will say that it involves an awkward visit to an old hometown, and semi-accidental catfishing.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Back when The King’s Speech came out, I wasn’t all that interested in it, until I read a review that said, “you won’t know why you need to see this movie until after you’ve seen it.” That line worked on me, and I hope it will work on you.

This is a book that is alternately warmly and sadly funny. Every character is a person and every moment feels real. I loved both protagonists, despite how often they screwed up, because in their hindsight-is-20/20 awkwardness I saw myself.

The execution really shines. Every page had me feeling a whole range of emotions; giggly amusement to reflective sadness, anxiety to relief, excitement to resignation, depression to hope. The ending was a good kind of unsettling. It didn’t leave me unsatisfied, but I did leave wondering. It haunts me, not like an angry spirit, but like Russell, who lived in your apartment before you and electrocuted himself with a faulty toaster, and who likes to sit next to you on the couch and ask slightly annoying questions, but it’s cool because he’s a good dude and he promises he’ll scare off any intruders. He’s not sure why he’s here and he doesn’t know when he’s going to leave.

Not sure where Russell came from; he’s not in the book. Anyways. It’s a good book. You should check it out.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

The Panther and the Lash, by Langston Hughes

The Panther and the Lash

What It’s About

A collection of Langston Hughes’ most politically outspoken poems, published in 1967.

Why I Think You’d Like It

When it comes to poetry, I think we often expect a puzzle. Most poems, by way of symbolic language and artful structure, partially conceal their subject. In doing so, they make you hunt for it, and so when you finally realize what they are saying, it hits you all the more powerfully. Langston Hughes does almost the opposite. He takes what we all witness and understand, but shroud in euphemism and distancing language, and he strips it bare. He takes topics that we would dance gingerly up to, and subtracts the dance. He plunges us straight into truth, and then looks at us with arms crossed and eyebrow raised, not even having to say, “what? don’t tell me you’re surprised. I know, deep down, you aren’t really.”

There are classics who should be read because of their place in history, and there are classics that should be read because they are damn good. Langston Hughes is both. He is smart and wry. His poems pound like feet slapping the pavement. His words move. He was one of our first Black poets, and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance whose voice long outlasted its heydey. His voice revolutionized American poetry.

Consider this review a recommendation of any of his works, but I do especially like The Panther and the Lash. It is Hughes at his most raw, fierce and angry, and in my opinion, that also makes it him at his best.

Content Warnings

Swearing, slurs, references to violent periods.

Am I Still an Atheist?

I’ve been going through some reflections on my religious beliefs/lack thereof, and for a while now I’ve been wanting to update you all. This past week I’ve been battling a nasty chest bug. Then my cassette player wasn’t working, so I got an even later start on writing the episode. I was really dissatisfied with where it was, but I wanted to post something interesting and religion related, so hopefully this is an adequate substitute. My sincerest apologies for the change.

So, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had an issue with the religion I had been raised with. That problem was an excess of bullshit. And to be clear, I’m not talking about all Christianity. I’m talking about the specific subculture of conservative, evangelical Christianity, which is anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-feminist and anti-civil rights, except the really popular ones, which may be supported in a milquetoast-y way that doesn’t challenge the traditional supremacy of old white men. You know. The bullshit Christianity.

But I hadn’t yet lost faith in the existence of some kind of higher being or afterlife or greater plan for the world. I just had no conception of what that all might look like. So I did some research, on Islam and Buddhism and Baha’i and non-bullshit Christianity, and everything else. I discovered two things.

First, every religion in existence has at least one bullshit version and at least one non-bullshit version. That is to say, there is at least one version where people believe in things that science has conclusively disproved, and also look down on at least one type of person who is, you know, not actually evil. And then there’s at least one version that doesn’t so much do that. I definitely knew that I wanted to follow a non-bullshit religion.

Second, none of the non-bullshit religions claimed to offer conclusive proof that their variation was correct. This was unsettling to me. I was used to claims of logical consistency, objective truth, and absolute confidence in being right. Sure, those claims turned out to be completely unfounded, but at least those claims meant I could eventually be certain of something. I was eventually certain that they were wrong. There’s something to be said for that.

I took to praying that God, the real God, wherever he/she/it was and whatever name he/she/it went by, would divinely offer me some kind of proof. Or, failing that, at least strong personal conviction.

No guidance came, so eventually I became an atheist.

If you’re reading this hoping for a decry of how foolish that was, I’m sorry to say you’ll be at least partially disappointed. I think it was exactly where I needed to be. After twenty years steeping in highly toxic religion, I needed a detox. I needed to see what life was like without passionate, fundamentalist belief, and I needed to know it would be okay.

And, you know, I was fine. I met some atheists who were real self-righteous dicks, and I met some who weren’t. Turns out atheism too has a bullshit and non-bullshit version. The non-bullshit version is people going, “I don’t believe in any God, and I’m fine with that. I find meaning enough without religion.” The bullshit one adds, “and that makes me an inherently better person than any non-atheists.” The bullshit atheists don’t come with any specific sub-denomination, so you have to just get to know people and see which one they are.

So all that was fine. I got some remedial science education in, started a cool blog series, and figured out how to be cool with the idea that my consciousness would probably end along with my body. Good stuff.

But over the last year or so, I’ve started to feel a little tug inside towards something more spiritual.

“Huh,” I went. “That’s weird and does not fit with my current conception of the world. It is probably nothing, and will go away on it’s own.”

It didn’t.

So, back into the thinking and the researching I dove. One of the things I realized was that the thing we call “religion” has multiple functions. One is to explain the world around us. One is to provide moral guidelines. One is to provide supportive communities for personal growth. There may be others, but those are the big ones. Or the ones I am most interested in.

The trouble with the explanation aspect is that eventually science starts catching up and measuring things that were once based on faith. This upsets religion, quite a lot. Religion does not like being told that it’s random guess was wrong, and has been wrong for generations. Unfortunately, in these arguments, science usually has the receipts. Personally, I think religion should officially retire from this function, and delegate it to science.

Now, unlike many skeptical materialists, I don’t pretend science is perfect at this function. Science is a slow and complicated process. For example, we haven’t properly disproven an afterlife, or a soul. It’s just that neither of those are things that fit well into everything else we know about death and the human brain. But also there’s a lot we generally don’t know about those things, so, the honest scientific answer to “is there such a thing as an afterlife?” is “I dunno. It’s really hard to research that.”

Now, people don’t like “I don’t know yet” as an answer, especially to questions with such existentially profound implications. So people seize on either the few tests that confirm their pre-existing biases, or just dress up those biases with words that sound very sciencey. People on both sides of these kinds of questions do that. But I think, even with this caveat, science is better than religion at figuring out facts. We just need to get better at accepting incomplete answers.

I could write a whole post on that. On to the next function.

Religion, I think, does help communities form moral philosophies. It’s very hard to make moral arguments from purely scientific standpoints, because science doesn’t make value judgments. Value is something that comes from a human perspective. Religion is good at giving that subjective perspective equally subjective language, and then we can use that language to compare notes, and create an effective intersubjective framework.

But that said, the truly universal morals don’t need religion to get there. People arrive independently at them using very different contexts, and people of no religion are just as likely to be good people as those who are deeply religious. But I do think religion can be a useful tool, both for individuals and societies. It just becomes a problem when religious people create echo chambers, instead of working to broaden the reach of their religious framework, and create a generous, diverse moral community.

Again, I could write for ages on this. Let’s wrap up the final function; communities.

Religious communities can be great. You can also be a happy, complete and sociable person whose communities happen to all be non-religious. So long as you’re surrounding yourself with good, supportive people who work to make the world a better place, you do whatever works for you. I don’t think anybody should feel forced to join a religious community.

But that said, I want to join a religious community. I dunno, I guess it’s just that things that religious communities are into happen to really appeal to me? And frankly, even at the height of my atheism, I never felt good around atheist communities. I never clicked with them. Not even the communities that were pretty solidly non-bullshit. This isn’t a judgment, it’s just that I never got that, “yes, these are my people! I have no trouble being myself here!”

You know who is giving me that feeling right now? Wiccans and neopagans. I went to an event and did a lot of lurky reading, and it felt really awesome.

That doesn’t mean I’m an official warlock now. I’m exploring. After a bit more, I might find I’m out of place after all, and some other religious community suits me. Or that I am just destined to spend my life a nomad of various faith communities. I am cool with all of these options.

(and, not to get too deep into it, yes, wiccans and neopagans also come in bullshit and non-bullshit varieties. It’s almost like they are humans or something)

As I am still very much an ex-Christian, and specifically an ex-evangelical, I do still want to do my reviews of Adventures in Odyssey, as well as some more works of C. S. Lewis and a smattering of other bits of Christian pop culture. I have been thinking of a good title to replace “Reviews as an Atheist,” and I have settled on “Reviews as a Godless Heathen.” I like that phrase for myself. It sounds funny and self-depricating, but it’s also a pretty accurate description of where I am. I’m not a Christian and God isn’t really a part of my religious makeup, but other than that, I could be anything. I don’t really know, and I fully expect it will change over the years.

I’ll be updating the titles and tags accordingly, and I’ll post the next AIO review two weeks from now. Thanks as always for coming along on the journey, and take good care of yourself! You are awesome.

Coal, by Audre Lorde

Coal

What It’s About

An early collection of poems on identity and society by an iconic activist.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In my last review, I said how much I love Dothead’s transparency; how it does not alienate those new to poetry by hiding the point. But please don’t take that to mean that subtler, puzzling poems are any less worth reading. There is something positively thrilling about poems that hit you with a feeling you can’t quite explain, then make you hungry to go back, dig deeper, put fragment after fragment together until the whole meaning hits you. It’s like solving a crossword, but the crossword is also a sacred, beautiful hymn to all of life’s mysteries.

The only trouble is that those kinds of poems are easy to fake. It’s easy to create bewilderment without payoff. Too many poets with nothing to say hide behind obscurity, punishing their readers with a fruitless chase. They train other cowardly pseudo intellectuals to hide behind incomprehensibility, while teaching the truly curious to dislike poetry.

The best antidote to that is a poet who has real ideas behind their words. One who knows how to tantalize you with poignant images and beautiful flashes of understanding, rewarding the readers who read over and over again, until the full truth comes out.

Anyway, if you like that kind of thing, Coal by Audre Lorde is a fantastic book, and it happened to be written by a Black queer feminist civil rights pioneer and overall badass human being.

Content Warnings

Many poems talk about oppression, isolation and emotional pain, but while the language is moving it is generally not graphic.

Dothead, by Amit Majmudar

Dothead

What It’s About

Everything. Race, family and identity, language, the loss of a friend, the flight of a drone, the motion of a spinning top. The only thing all these poems have in common is that they’re all brilliant.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

If you’re the kind of person who sometimes struggles with poetry, but wants to like it, this is a perfect book for you. Even as he uses all the devices that make poetry, well, poetic, he is careful not to let the reader lose the point. He never mistakes incomprehensibility for brilliance. He is also fun. Even when dwelling on a difficult topic, there will be lines that startle you into smiling at their witty incongruities. If he references older work or academic esoterica, it will either be because that’s what the poem is about, or he will be careful to give enough context for the reader who is less familiar. He will never use them in a way that distances you from a topic you should be able to relate to. I wish I had found him earlier; he would have helped me get from my “wanting to like poetry” stage to my “actually liking poetry” stage much faster.

At the same time, well established literary nerds will be delighted by his wordsmithing. He uses nearly every structure and device under the sun with equal brilliance, and he’s clearly one of us. Whether the goal is beauty or tragedy or irony or humor, he can put his goddamn words together.

The balance between entertaining and thought provoking is splendid, and the craftsmanship is awe inspiring. This went straight to the top of my must-buy list.

Content Warnings

Some of the poems are about violence, racism or bullying. One, Abecedarian, talks about (among other things) a teenager pressuring his girlfriend into having oral sex.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Do, For a Change

This episode comes shortly after A Touch of Healing but before Letting Go. For those who haven’t read those reviews, Zachary is a kid who became paralyzed and lost his father in a car accident. When introduced, he is angry and defensive but over the series he learns to deal with his pain and let his guard down. At the end of A Touch of Healing, Jack Allen (friend of Whit who briefly fills in for him) converts both Zachary and his mother Eileen to Christianity. This is their first episode after that conversion.

It opens with Zachary and Eileen arguing. We don’t get the cause of it, only the tail end, when things have already spiraled beyond whatever began the fight, when they are just reflexively flinging familiar rebuttals at each other. It ends with exhaustion, rather than resolution, and Eileen says, “I don’t get it Zach, we are Christians now, both of us. Things are supposed to be different.”

The idea that Christians are supposed to be inherently better has underwritten a lot of my issues with the other episodes in this theme, and this show as a whole. When they focused only on the (valid) negatives of secular pop psychology, but did not apply the same scrutiny to Whit’s brand of lesson teaching, well, acknowledging this “Christians are better people” bias explains a lot of that discrepancy.

For what it’s worth, though, I grew up reading cringeworthy books where literally every Christian had only minor flaws, every non-Christian was horrible, and religious conversion created an instant transformation from shitty to nigh perfect. AIO does not do that. While secular and non-Christian characters tend to fall lower on the hierarchy of Rightness, they can still have endearing or sympathetic character traits, and Christian characters still have significant flaws that they need to work on. Their stance is not that Christians are perfect, but that conversion to Christianity is essential to beginning the process of self-improvement.

And, for the record, I think that many people use their faith as a framework to help themselves grow, and that’s fine. I don’t take issue with self-improvement in a religious context. It’s just that, if you really think Christianity is the only means to grow and mature, I can only assume you have not met many non-Christians. It’s a bias that does not survive more than a cursory encounter with large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, agnostics, wiccans, Jains, neopagans, people from a denomination you were told wasn’t “real Christianity,” Baha’i….

Anyway, in the next scene, Zachary is in a fight with his friend Erica. He’s mansplaining the toy train to her, and in the ensuing fight, it kinda breaks. Erica storms away, and Jack comes to find out what caused all the commotion. Zachary confides that he has been fighting with everyone lately. He says the whole point of being a Christian is that you become a better person. So why is he still picking fights with people, losing his temper, and being a general brat?

Jack says that self improvement takes time. He advises Zachary to pray and meditate on Scripture, and also invites him to join a Bible Study specifically geared towards new Christians. At that very moment, Connie is also recruiting for the Bible study. Eugene has recently converted, and his experience is very different from Zachary’s. Connie has given him a book to read that was extremely formative to her faith, but Eugene actually found it somewhat boring and elementary. As a curious, academically inclined person who has worked at Whit’s End for years, he is already well versed in the various doctrinal issues. He attempts to say this tactfully, but being Eugene, he doesn’t quite avoid coming off arrogant.

Connie feels mildly miffed, but she understands that Eugene isn’t trying to be hurtful and condescending. She invites him to Jack’s Bible Study, and he gladly accepts.

At the school library, before the first Bible Study meeting, Zachary tries to check out a book, but Erica is volunteering at checkout. She deliberately makes the checkout drag on, clearly messing with him in revenge for the other day. Zachary blows his temper, but does apologize, and Erica is frankly a bitch. She even picks on him for getting a book on being a new Christian, digging at him for how many times he will probably need to renew it.

Damn, Erica, way to not practice what you preach.

The study is just Zachary, Eileen and Eugene, plus Connie and Jack, which is kind of weird. The writers could easily have inserted minor one-off characters to round it out. It makes it feel like Jack didn’t actually have a full Bible Study lined up, and just threw one together when he realized Zachary and Eileen needed some extra support. Actually, that’s exactly the kind of thing Jack would do… headcanon accepted. Anyway, Zachary tells the group about the library incident, as an example of how he keeps losing his temper. Everyone is encouraging, pointing out that he apologized, which is not something he would have done before. He is also aware of his flaws, which Jack says is the first step to getting better. Zachary can’t grow without being aware of what he needs to work on.

Now it’s Eugene’s turn. Having spent so much time around Christians and Christianity, Eugene knows exactly what Bible Study is really for; humblebrags! He lists his rigorous schedule for daily meditation and Bible reading, and rejoices that he has had no trouble sticking to these rituals of daily spiritual stimulation. Again, he doesn’t mean to come across as an asshole, rubbing Zach’s face in the difference in their religious experiences. It’s just that when you’re as great as Eugene, you can’t help but come across as showing off.

Jack and Connie don’t really have a response to this, so they suggest breaking for snack. Eugene won’t be partaking, as he is fasting to better understand the plight of the underprivileged. But he is happy to say grace for everyone else.

His idea of a blessing… let’s just say it contains the word “eschatological,” a word which never belongs in a pre-meal prayer. First of all, it means “related to the theology of the end times,” and if that appropriate to a meal than somebody has definitely overused the hot sauce. Second, most people don’t know what that word means, and so they will spend the entire meal trying not to wonder why he felt the need to bring up the study of poo.

Zach’s next test of patience comes on a school field trip, where he ends up paired with Glenn. I don’t think I’ve talked about Glenn before. Glenn has two passions in life; learning about every horrific natural disaster, conspiracy theory and apocalyptic scenario possible, and using that knowledge to inform everyone in sight of the various gory ways in which they might die. He is less concerned with whether or not anybody around him wants to hear about their imminent mortality.

Like all tragic heroes, he sees all dangers but the one right in front of him, the one most likely to get him in the end; the fact that he’s so fucking annoying that sooner or later somebody’s gonna chuck him out a window.

Speaking of which, after an hour or so of hearing about giant slugs, secretly blind bus drivers, and hidden fault lines, Zach shoves Glenn into a model volcano. Listen, I know this episode is supposed to be about Zach’s lack of patience, but I for one feel this is a well-deserved outcome.

Zachary decides that, after this turn of events, he can’t be a Christian, and he heads to Whit’s End to return the Bible Jack gave him.

Before Zachary arrives, Jack walks in on Eugene explaining the difference between wisdom and knowledge to a kid at Whit’s End. When the kid leaves, Eugene laughs at a “trite little exercise” she was doing, where she looks through verses on knowledge and wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Jack reveals that he is the origin of that trite little exercise. He didn’t just want to give the kid answers, but teach her how to find the answers for herself. God, I just, I have to talk about Jack for a bit, because he is so great. He has so much faith in people’s abilities to grow and improve, and everything he does is geared towards empowering that. He is simply wonderful. I wish he could have replaced Whit forever.

Before Jack make another point, Zachary shows up with the Bible. He tells Jack he gives up. Jack’s response is, “What’s the use of taking a bath? I’m just going to get dirty again.” Everybody sins, he says. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody stumbles. And if everybody gave up on faith after a stumble, there would be no Christians left. He admits that he messes up. Zachary doesn’t believe him, but Jack tells him stories about all the trouble he got into, and how long it took to improve.

This revelation that Jack, his ultimate mentor, used to be as bad as he was, has a powerful effect on Zachary. He takes back his Bible and promises to keep trying.

Eugene starts reflecting on how hard it is to relate to Zachary’s struggle, and Jack decides it’s about time to give him a talk about humility. Eugene literally cannot name a single thing that he thinks he needs to work on. And that’s the problem. He is so absorbed in how well he is doing, he can’t recognize that he’s driving everyone bonkers. Jack, ever the diplomat, gently points out that Eugene’s next project is to develop the humility to let go of the academia and exercises, and really grow as a person.

At the next Bible study, instead of talking about his screw ups, Zachary talks about the things he has been doing to consciously practice patience. He gets into long lines instead of short ones. He asked Glenn to help him on a school project. He even ate an entire plate of peas with a knife.

Eugene planned to deliver a multi-page lecture on some obscure theological issue, featuring heavy references to the philosophy of medieval scholars. But, given what he and Jack talked about, he decides to instead share about his reflections on humility.

With a multi-page lecture. Complete with references to medieval theological philosophy.

Connie comments to Zachary that he is going to have a new test of patience. Zachary says he doesn’t think he’s ready.

Yeah, I fuckin’ loved this episode.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Jack’s speech to Zachary about committing to personal growth and getting second chances. It was the kind of thing everyone needs to hear in their life.

Worst Part: I still think the Bible study should have had a few more characters. That’s my only criticism, and I fully admit that it’s a nitpick.

Story Rating: Good, character driven, funny parts that were actually funny. A

Moral Rating: I wish they hadn’t conflated being Christian with being a decent person, but I liked everything else. B+

Final Ratings For The X Topic

Best Episode: Do, For a Change

Worst Episode: The Pushover

Good Things They Said: Growth takes long term effort and real work. Pop psychology needs to be taken with some real skeptical thought. It’s good to remember to reward good behavior, but more important to learn that actual morality does not require the promise of imminent reward.

Bad Things They Said: Growth is something only Christians get to do. Good advice from secular sources is Not a Thing. Manipulative lessons from authority figures are fine, so long as the authority figure is Whit.

Things They Failed to Address: That Whit seriously needs to learn the difference between “please introduce my kid to some nicer kids his age” and “please send my kid into the woods with a self-absorbed bully. Preferably when it’s close to dark and without any adult supervision.”

Overall Rating: Obviously their religious bigotry is a problem, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in using that word. In their eyes, any non-Christian faith is inherently inferior. In reviewing these episodes, I kept feeling like they had a lot of good ideas, but their focus kept being skewed by that bigotry. They kept having to remind the audience and themselves that all the good advice they have only counts if it is coming from a Christian perspective, and they tripped over themselves a bit.

Despite that, I’m still inclined to give this a rating on the positive side. When I’m torn, the deciding factor is often how I personally was impacted. I think that, regardless of their assumptions about where morality comes from, the message that I should keep seeking to be a better person, and not give up when it was hard, had a great influence on me. This feels like a B to me.

You Can Fly, by Carole Boston Weatherford

You Can Fly

What It’s About

A history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, in free verse.

Why I Think You’d Like It

 

It is a beautiful celebration of the struggle and victory of African American pilots in WWII, illustrated with woodcuts made by the author’s son. There is a fictionalized POV character but the events and social realities are meticulously researched. Despite the pain and unfairness, this is ultimately a story of triumph and pride. It’s a celebration of the hard work, and the people of color who battled white supremacy, both at home and abroad.

Content Warnings

References to Jim Crow, racist bullying and lynchings, but nothing graphic

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Pushover

One of my favorite shows is Arrested Development. It is, in brief, a comedy about a family of wealthy real estate tycoons who suddenly lose their good standing and fortune, and consistently fail to get it back because wacky hijinks. It also has more running gags in one episode than most comedies fit in five seasons.

One of these running gags is J. Walter Weatherman, a former employee with a prosthetic limb. Back when the main characters were all children, their father liked to teach lessons by rigging elaborate scenarios where the kids’ mistakes lead to a horrible “accident,” and J. Walter Weatherman pretends to lose his arm. Again.

J Walter Weatherman

These lessons are simultaneously effective and useless. The text of the lesson is absorbed. But one dramatic moment does not make for good character growth. It doesn’t teach underlying moral principles or good habits. It just scares them out of one specific bad habit. They don’t learn to be considerate, just assholes who leave notes.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I’m on the third of four episodes that summarize Adventures in Odyssey’s approach to self-improvement. The first two that I reviewed brought up some valid criticisms of mainstream methods to teach kids lessons. They have a decent grasp on certain things that don’t work, or don’t work as well as we sometimes wish they do. But now I’m going to talk about their favorite method to show a kid actually learning a lesson – Whit notices a character flaw and rigs a scenario where they see that the thing they are doing is Bad.

The episode opens with Cody, a new kid in Odyssey. To help him fit in, some kids are making him a super special sandwich for lunch. Ingredients already assembled include salami, mayonnaise, peanut butter and green beans. With donations from the large assembled crowd, they polish it off with banana peel, broccoli, liverwurst, and pickled pig’s feet.

Yeah, by “help fit in” they mean, “gang up on and pressure into doing embarrassing things.” And the sad thing is, he does it. With the group cheering him up, he takes a big bite out of the sandwich.

Well, they were clearly going for a mixture of “aww, poor kid” and “ew ew ew!”, so, mission accomplished.

Next, we meet Jared, who won’t let his friend Sarah play in the Bible Room, because “she’s doing it wrong.” Not sure how you play wrong, but apparently she was. They argue back and forth, until Whit separates them, and gives Jared a pretty solid lecture about how people need to make mistakes in order to explore and grow. Jared says he gets it, but he’s clearly just trying to get out of the conversation, as it takes about two and a half seconds for him to criticize another kid for carrying books wrong. Seriously.

Cody’s father comes by to pick him up. Cody is hanging out alone, looking at Bible maps. Cody’s father is worried that Cody doesn’t have friends and is willing to do anything for attention. He tells Whit the sandwich story, and about some other incidents. Cody’s character is fleshed out; he is generally a follower, not a leader, but he has never been this bad. He used to be able to use a modicum of common sense, instead of just going along with anything and anyone. Cody’s father asks Whit to keep an eye on him, and maybe help him make some better friends. Whit promises to do what he can.

So far, it’s a dang good episode. It’s funny, the characters are interesting, and Cody’s Dad has some great insights into what may be going on with Cody, and what might help him.

We get another scene of Cody being taken advantage of. The same kid who made him the sandwich has invited him to join a club, but part of the initiation is giving the founding members toys. Suuure, not suspicious at all, that. Cody delivers a remote controlled car and a baseball bat, and is rewarded with a time and an address. Which actually does lead him to a club meeting. It’s just that the club is a bunch of old ladies doing aerobics.

Worse, they decide he’s so cute, they start badgering him to join them, and because he can’t say no… Well, at least it’s healthier than a banana peel sandwich.

When Cody goes to Whit’s End that afternoon, every muscle in his body is burning. He walks in on Whit trying once again to talk to Jared about his bossiness. Seeing the bossiest kid in Odyssey next to the biggest pushover in Odyssey gives Whit an idea.

The next day, Cody and Jared meet at Whit’s End, and he gives them a job. He has some soda bottles for them to deliver to Tom Riley, and he will pay them for their help. Now, naturally Whit can get the bottles to Tom Riley any time. The real point is the map. Cody loves maps, and Jared has a notoriously bad sense of direction. So this task will force them to switch roles; Cody has to lead, and Jared has to follow.

Yeah, this doesn’t go well. Jared insists on taking the lead, and Cody caves quickly. They  take the wrong path out of the town and hit a dead end, but Jared insists on pressing forward through the brush. He runs into a barbed wire fence and scratches himself, but, determined to not be wrong, he decides the fence is a good sign. It must mark the beginning of Tom Riley’s farm. Cody makes some effort to stand up for himself, but Jared becomes all the more determined to prove himself right.

They wander on. It gets dark, and they start hearing things. Then a mysterious animal emerges and starts following them. They panic and run, and Jared trips in the dark and sprains his ankle, leaving them both helpless as the animal bears down on them.

It’s a sheep, which makes them both feel rather sheepish. It also makes Cody realize that they are not on Tom’s farm at all. Tom has apples and horses, not sheep. Cody carries Jared back to the edge of the farm, following the map. The fight has all gone out of Jared.

Whit finds them. He was expecting them to reach Tom long ago, and eventually realized Cody and Jared were in trouble. So he came out looking for them. As they are explaining the story he looks over the pair of them, and points out how Cody stood up for himself, and he is fine. An explicit parallel is drawn between him, the good kid who took the lead and was unhurt, and Jared, the bad kid who scratched his hand and sprained his ankle. This is supposed to be Cody’s big epiphany moment.

(EXPAND BELOW)

There are two things that really bug me here. First, Whit acts like Cody’s relative health is a natural consequence of his good decisions. It’s not. Cody could easily have cut himself on the fence or been the one who tripped. Or he could have easily gotten lost or hurt on his way back in the dark, after he made the right decision. The story contrived the outcome it wanted, and that’s shitty writing.

Second, Whit tries to act like he simultaneously expected that they would follow directions, and that this is how he knew it would turn out all along. Bull. Shit. Whit knew damn well Jared wouldn’t like listening to Cody give him directions, and he knew that Cody probably wouldn’t stand up for himself. He knew he was sending them into a pretty isolated area where they could easily get lost if they went off the map. What he didn’t know was that Cody would end unharmed. And for the record, I think he’s especially a dick for being fine with Jared being hurt. Jared is an ass, but he’s still a kid, and Whit is responsible for his safety.

Third is that, as I explained in the J. Walter Weatherman bit, epiphany moments don’t work in real life, especially when they are forced and manipulated. Sometimes they can lead to a renewed resolution to change, but real character growth takes time and practice.

But the episode actually seems to acknowledge this, as the final scene shows Cody’s Dad taking him to get his things back from the boy who took advantage of him. Cody’s Dad is in the car right outside for moral support, and Cody nearly throws up from the anxiety, but he gets his car and his bat back. His Dad says that, while he’s got a ways to go, he is making a good start.

What’s maddening about this episode is how easily it could have been great. When Cody’s Dad asks Whit for help, he specifically asks for Whit to help Cody make friends. There are definitely some recurring characters who could be convinced to hang out with Cody and not force-feed him gross sandwiches. I also think the basic concept of giving Cody responsibility and leadership opportunities is good. With friends and a few confidence boosts, Cody would probably go back to his old self; easygoing and cooperative, but without the desperation that makes him vulnerable to manipulation. But no, that was just too mundane and sensible. We’ve got to set up this whole underhanded Jeeves-and-Wooster routine.

Whit is not so different from the father from Arrested Development. Even when given all the tools to understand why a kid acts the way they do, he feels the need to resort to manipulation. I’ve already reviewed three other episodes where Whit uses deception and elaborate staging to contrive an epiphany moment. Every one has the same flaw; real humans don’t fucking work that way.

The next episode will come from AIO’s Whit-free era, and show a bit of a different take.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I liked Cody’s Dad a lot. He was involved but not intrusive, and willing to give support while also encouraging his kid to grow. He throws in enough snark to sound like a real person, but not so much as to sound unkind. I don’t blame him for giving the OK to Whit’s plan; we don’t know how Whit framed it. “I’d like to give your son and one of his friends an errand to run for me. I think it will help with his confidence,” sounds quite different from, “I’d like to send your weak-willed son into the woods unsupervised with a kid who is bossy to the point of borderline bullying, and this second kid also has terrible judgment. They will probably get lost, and I have no contingency plan for when that inevitably happens.”

Worst Part: Whit’s entire plan! Good god, this is not okay.

Story Rating: ….Ugh, I’m not sure. There are more good scenes than bad ones, but the payoff they lead up to is Whit’s plan and speech. It’s like eating a cake that is just coated in high quality, beautifully piped buttercream icing with fondant sculptures and caramel shards, but when you get to the cake itself, it is dry and utterly flavorless (why yes, I have been watching way too much Great British Bake Off. How did you guess?). You can heap well deserved, honest compliments on the good stuff, but in the end, the thing you were actually working up to is a disappointment. For that reason, I’m gonna have to give it a D.

Moral Rating: The explicit moral is that you should stand up for yourself when you know you’re in the right. I’m totally behind that. And there’s also some good illustration of how to actually grow and stand up for yourself, as well as the difference between being deceived and being gullible. In both cases, someone else is ultimately in the wrong, but it’s still worth being aware when you are choosing to override your own common sense.

But mixed in with all that good is the implicit assumption that it’s fine for adults to manipulate kids into learning lessons, and it’s fine to mildly endanger them, even if there was clearly a less awful approach available. I don’t think that ruined the message as much as it did the story, but I’m still going to dock points for it, because it’s a big problem. C-